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What Good’s a Minimum Wage if Workers Aren’t Getting it?

Kate and fellow farm workers made the best of shocking working conditions

Kate and fellow farm workers made the best of shocking working conditions

“I can tolerate a lot, we Asians are very strong! But it was still very hard,” says Kate, 32, who came to Australia from Taiwan on a working holiday visa.

“I was living in really poor living conditions, it was accommodation that the farmer provided. Eight people in one room.” 

Kate is sharing her experience of farm work following the release of a joint report by Unions NSW and the Migrant Workers’ Centre into wage theft and human rights abuses on our farms. 

Piece rates, the practice of paying workers for the amount of produce they pick rather than an hourly rate, are the vine from which so many stories of abuse and mistreatment grow. They are used in an overwhelming number of cases to circumvent minimum wage requirements and erode working conditions.

“The reality is that working on piece rates - it’s no money at all,” says Kate. 

“We often ended up earning less than the minimum wage. Sometimes I was couch surfing to save money. 

“Sometimes I went dumpster diving at night. The first time I did that, I was so shocked at myself for doing it.”

Kate has earned as little as $24 for a whole day’s work of backbreaking labour. 

 

In the course of conducting the research for the report, the Migrant Workers’ Centre and Unions NSW conducted the National Horticulture Industry Piece Rate Survey to build solid evidence on the working experience of horticultural workers. Over 1300 workers completed the survey, and 91% said they had been paid by piece rate.

78% of survey respondents reported being underpaid during their time doing farm work. 80% were underpaid while on piece rates, while 61% were underpaid on hourly rates.

Kate worked on a mandarin and lemon farm where she was paid by the crate, not the hour (Supplied)

Kate worked on a mandarin and lemon farm where she was paid by the crate, not the hour (Supplied)

Some piece rate workers reported earning less than $1 an hour. Exploitation of this nature has clearly become the industry norm. 

“We want a wage that we can actually live on,” says Kate. “Farmers are reluctant because they want people working harder and harder. It’s really difficult for backpackers and farm workers to find decent wages.” 

Wage theft is one thing, but as Kate says, piece rates are also used as an instrument for applying pressure on workers. 12% of respondents reported having worked as many as 20 hours a day under piece rate arrangements at least once. Desperate to make enough money to survive, workers have no choice but to push their bodies to the point of breaking in order to fill their crates. 

 
Kate regularly suffered cuts and bruises in the course of her farm work (Supplied)

Kate regularly suffered cuts and bruises in the course of her farm work (Supplied)

 

Fast, high-pressure work is often worsened by the failure of farm owners to provide the correct equipment for picking and for basic safety. Kate and her coworkers were constantly suffering cuts and bruises. 26% of survey respondents reported employer breaches related to work health and safety laws. 

The Horticulture Award is broken

The Horticulture Award requires employers and employees to have genuinely agreed to piece rate work. The survey evidence, however, shows that many employers fail to comply with this requirement; 63% of respondents were not given a choice between piece rates or being paid an hourly rate. 34% said they had never signed a piece rate agreement.

The Award doesn’t just create the conditions for rampant wage theft, it also explicitly undermines several other entitlements that workers should be able to depend on. Piece rate workers have no entitlements to ordinary hours of work and rostering arrangements, meal allowance, and overtime. In any other workplace, like a factory or a warehouse, this would be unthinkable. 

The Award, therefore, must be changed. To accompany the shocking findings of the report, the Migrant Workers’ Centre is running a petition to call on the Fair Work Commission to amend the Horticulture Award to guarantee workers are paid at least minimum wage.

Visa system cultivates inequality

At the same time, the Migrant Workers’ Centre is demanding the Morrison Government commit to a range of urgent measures to address this catastrophic situation. Many relate to the working visa system.

It is no secret that an overwhelming majority of farm work in Australia is performed by backpackers on temporary visas. Contrary to agri-bosses’ claims of a shortage of local workers, employers have systematically pushed locals aside so they can more easily exploit workers on visas. These are workers without experience in Australia’s workplace relations system, who often lack local support networks or experience language barriers when seeking help, and who, ultimately, are dependent on their employer for their visa status. This power imbalance inherent in the temporary visa system often prevents migrant workers from exercising their workplace rights. The result is rampant wage theft, injuries, discrimination, bullying, sexual assault and harassment at work.

Kate says that she worked on a strawberry farm where the farmer advertised for ‘Asian workers only’. 

Migrant workers are campaigning for a number of legislative fixes, and all unionists can campaign with them in solidarity by signing this petition. As workers we are united - and we’ll stand together against any boss trying to circumvent the wages and conditions we’ve fought for.

“I can tolerate a lot, we Asians are very strong! But it was still very hard,” says Kate, 32, who came to Australia from Taiwan on a working holiday visa.

Piece rates, the practice of paying workers for the amount of produce they pick rather than an hourly rate, are the vine from which so many stories of abuse and mistreatment grow. They are used in an overwhelming number of cases to circumvent minimum wage requirements and erode working conditions.

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